Coaching Corner: 3 Benefits of Asking Purposeful Questions

by Brenda Konicke, Director of Professional Learning
July 12th, 2017

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An effective math coach possesses a multitude of skills, but the ability to ask purposeful, targeted questions is one of the most vital to the coaching process. As coaches, we want to allow teachers to reflect on their practice and on the impact they’re having on students, as well as to think about how they can successfully drive instruction going forward. Good questioning can help both the coach and the teacher overcome barriers, assess needs, explore concerns, and uncover solutions.

“By choosing our words carefully and using intentionally designed questions, we can engage and transform another person’s thinking and perspective.”
—Diane Huinker, “Focusing Conversations to Promote Teacher Thinking,” Teaching Children Mathematics, March 2004.

Why are purposefully designed questions so important to effective coaching? Here are a few ways they can enhance the coaching process.

Overcoming Obstacles

“By choosing our words carefully and using intentionally designed questions, we can engage and transform another person’s thinking and perspective.”

We all face different obstacles as we work with teachers in a coaching role. Perhaps teachers are reluctant to change their ways. Maybe they are unreceptive to constructive feedback. Both coaches and teachers may experience some listening roadblocks from time to time. Considering common barriers and possible solutions in advance can help guide the coaching experience. Whatever obstacles you may face in your coach-teacher relationship, asking purposeful, thoughtful questions can help clarify a situation, generate ideas, set goals, and motivate teachers. A coach who possesses the skillset and tools to ask these questions is prepared to respond to new obstacles quickly and effectively, and to move the coaching conversation in a focused direction.

Promoting a Growth Mindset

Many educators have embraced psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of a “growth mindset” in their classrooms. Dweck explains that many people have a “fixed mindset”, and believe intelligence and ability are predetermined. For them, striving for success means avoiding failure. Those who possess a growth mindset believe failure is not a sign of weakness or a lack of intellect, and they view setbacks as learning experiences, and chances to further their abilities.

When teachers feel personally attacked by feedback that is not praise, they often spend more time questioning that feedback than responding to it in a constructive way. Growth mindset is not an overnight transformation, but our questions in the coaching process can help promote it. Consider the following two questions:

“You’ve had a setback in teaching fractions. What would you do differently next time?”

“I noticed this group in the back of the room having difficulty using benchmark fractions. What are some things you might say about what students know, and what might you say they are struggling with? What are some additional steps you might want to take tomorrow?”

How we question teachers affects how they perceive themselves. We can use our questioning to guide them to be more open to admitting mistakes and failures, and to focus less on the past and more on what they can improve in the future.

Keeping a Student-Centered Focus

How do we keep students at the forefront of our coaching? A more traditional coaching relationship—one in which the coach comes into the classroom and judges the teacher, offering advice and suggestions along the way—too often prioritizes the teacher’s experience over the student’s learning experience. There are ways to format questions to invite the coach and the teacher to think more deeply about student learning.

Consider these two questions:

“How did your mixed numbers lesson go?”

“As you consider Tommy’s ability to work within mixed numbers, what are some theories you have about why he’s struggling?”

Which of these questions invites the teacher to focus her reflection on her students? We can use our questioning to drive the conversation to focus on what students are doing, and what evidence do we have that they’re learning or not learning.

When we provide teachers with an invitation to contemplate, a structure to ask good questions, and a specific task, we prompt them to think deeply, make connections and embrace setbacks as opportunities for growth. Tune in for my next blog post, where I’ll dive deeper into structuring purposeful questions.

 

If you missed Brenda’s NCTM session, “The HeART of Coaching: Asking Purposeful Questions”, you may view the presentation slides here.

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